(IPS) featureThe US administration is sending its special envoy to the Middle East, retired Gen Anthony Zinni, back to the region for talks with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials in a renewed effort to arrange a cease-fire after 15 months of violence between the two sides.
US officials say they believe Palestine Authority (PA) chief Yassir Arafat has cracked down hard enough against two Islamist militant groups over the past two weeks to justify a new effort to gain a three-way agreement on implementing US-mediated plans for a permanent cease-fire and a return to peace talks.
Zinni, who arrives today, will spend four days in the region and officials in Washington are cautioning against expectations that he will be able to do much more in that time than lay the groundwork for talks on implementing the so-called 'Mitchell Plan', named for a previous US mediator, former Senator George Mitchell.
The plan calls for a freeze on Israeli settlements in the occupied territories as well as sustained PA efforts to stop attacks on Israelis, including settlers, as pre-conditions for resuming peace talks suspended when the so-called 'al Aqsa intifada' broke out in September 2000.
Zinni will be pushing, in particular, for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to ease travel and other restrictions in Gaza and the West Bank and to withdraw Israeli forces from Palestinian towns, including Arafat's West Bank headquarters at Ramallah, which they invaded after Palestinian suicide bombers killed more than 30 Israelis early last month.
''We don't expect any miracles on this trip,'' said one administration official.
Zinni also will push Arafat to continue his crackdown on Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Since Dec 16 last year, when the Palestinian leader publicly ordered a cease-fire, the PA reportedly has arrested more than 50 activists suspected of planning attacks against Israelis and closed several offices run by the two groups.
In the past two weeks, no suicide bombings have taken place and the occupied territories have generally been quieter, although clashes between PA forces and militants at a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on Dec 21-22 left at least seven people dead and more than 80 injured.
Palestinian officials strongly urged Zinni's return now as an acknowledgment by Washington of Arafat's recent efforts and the political risks which he is undertaking by taking on Hamas and Islamic Jihad more directly than before.
The Palestinians argue that the Mitchell Plan implementation talks should begin immediately, precisely because the last two weeks have been so calm.
After taking office last year, Sharon said he supported the plan but insisted that talks about its implementation could only take place after seven days of total calm.
Sharon, whose government is split between hard-line Likud forces, from which he hails, and more dovish Labour members led by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, is far less enthusiastic about Zinni's visit now.
Critics warn that the Israeli leader might try to sabotage the visit as they say he did before Zinni's last mission to the region in November. Just before that visit, Israeli military forces assassinated a prominent military leader of Hamas, violating an informal understanding between Arafat and the Islamist group that the latter would not carry out suicide bombings.
The assassination set off a new cycle of violence that made it impossible for Zinni to continue, and he returned home before the Christmas holiday.
Peres blasted Sharon yesterday for not already easing restrictions before Zinni's arrival as Washington had wanted. Late yesterday, a well-known Palestinian doctor and human rights activist, Mustafa Barghouti, was detained by Israeli police in Jerusalem in what the Israeli peace group, Gush Shalom, denounced as ''another provocation'' by Sharon designed to increase tensions on the eve of Zinni's visit.
A Sharon spokesman also insisted that the past week had not met Sharon's conditions for ''complete calm'' required before launching the Mitchell Plan talks. Israel cited two separate incidents last Friday when its forces killed six Palestinians who were allegedly carrying out or planning to carry out attacks against Israelis. Palestinians claimed at least three of the six were killed as part of the Sharon government's policy of ''targeted assassinations''.
Sending Zinni back now appears to mark a shift by the administration over the last three weeks from virtually unconditional backing for Sharon after the suicide bombings to a more even-handed approach which has been urged by European and Arab leaders.
In a break from long-established US policy, the George W Bush administration repeatedly refused to call for restraint by Israel after two suicide bombings that killed 26 Israelis during the weekend of Dec 1, 2001.
While Washington declined to go along with Sharon's statement, after a third bombing one week later, that Arafat had become ''irrelevant'' to the peace process, it insisted that the Palestinian leader had to prove his relevance by cracking down hard against the Islamist groups.
At the same time, anti-Arafat hawks like Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld appeared to endorse Sharon's charges that Arafat was a ''terrorist'' and publicly attacked the Palestinian leader for his alleged failure to ''ever (deliver) anything for the Palestinian people throughout history''. Several of Rumsfeld's closest advisers have voiced opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict very similar to those of Sharon over the years.
Of all of the administration's officials, only Secretary of State Colin Powell, who named Zinni to the post in November in a speech announcing Washington's re-engagement in the peace process, suggested that Sharon exercise caution in retaliating against the Palestinians after the suicide bombings. In that respect, Zinni's return to the region suggests that Powell is regaining influence.
Several prominent personalities, including former President Jimmy Carter, who mediated the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt, and his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, have recently urged Bush to make a renewed effort, arguing that peace will only be possible if Washington takes a more assertive position.